Finding the answers

By - , Build 187

BRANZ Principal Scientist Manfred Plagmann was hooked on science from an early age. It is a passion that keeps him learning and helping to improve the health and comfort of New Zealand’s houses along the way.

Q. What’s your background – where you grew up and your education?

I grew up in a brewery town in the northwest of Germany – what town in Germany hasn’t got a brewery! From my childhood, I was exposed to architecture through my father, and my mother’s job was running a construction company. I earned my first school holiday money cleaning building sites. After school, I became a builder myself but later decided to follow my passion and become a scientist. I studied biophysics and organic chemistry.

Q. What attracted you to a career in science. Was there a specific event, teacher or particular affinity?

I was about 8 years old when I was introduced to science by the neighbour’s son. One afternoon, he showed me some chemistry experiments and I was hooked. Science was the thing for me from then on. After school, I spent time in the library reading about chemistry and physics. Some of the books I bought I still have – although few of the chemicals in the experiments are now available to the public. I am still very attracted to science as it provides mental stimulation and new learnings to satisfy my curiosity. A downside is that, once I fully understand a problem, I want to move on to the next interesting question.

Q. Tell Build about your career.

After finishing my master’s studies, I worked at research institutes and in hospitals before coming to New Zealand. Once here, I started my doctorate at University of Canterbury in physics on the dynamics of planetary scale fluids. Most of my experiments were conducted at the Mt John Observatory where I spent many nights looking at the sky and measuring the wind velocity and temperature at 90 km height.

With my PhD thesis almost completed, I started at Industrial Research Ltd where I developed sensor technology. I then did my MBA in management science, system thinking and decision making, focusing on smart markets.

Besides working at BRANZ, I am a co-director of He Kainga Oranga, the healthy homes research group at Otago University, and help the Antarctic Heritage Trust in its efforts to preserve artefacts. I am also a founding member of the Indoor Air Quality Research Centre.

Q. What does your role at BRANZ involve?

Apart from research activities, it involves collaborating with national and international research institutes, groups and individuals. In the past, this meant visiting research partners and collaborators across the world. These days, it means long hours on video meetings in the middle of the night.

Mentoring and supervising students and early-career researchers is also part of my work.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in your area of work and as a BRANZ Principal Scientist? What aspects of your job are the most satisfying?

One of the biggest challenges is turning existing and future housing into high-performance buildings. To achieve operational tolerance of our buildings, we need multi-disciplinary project teams that understand the house as a system impacting on its occupants and vice versa. We need solutions that are not just technical but also address the psychological, social and health aspects of housing. Hence, we are building teams with other organisations to respond to these challenges.

Q. Your work is important because of the impact of New Zealand’s cold, damp housing on health. Tell us about positive impacts your work has had.

The best reward for me is when the search results are taken up and make a difference, with policy makers, designers and architects using the knowledge to inform their decision making. We had the opportunity to provide scientific evidence to influence changes in the Building Code, the Residential Tenancies Act as well as the healthy homes standards and thus helped to improve the outcomes for occupants.

As part of our research, we do home visits where, at times, we observe behaviour or building faults that can negatively impact the performance of the home or health of occupants. While this change is on a much smaller scale, it is rewarding when you hear that, for example, the severity of the occupant’s asthma has dropped because of an issue we raised or a leak was fixed before it caused severe damage.

Q. Anything else you want to add?

During my research career, I hope I have sparked an interest in science and its way to approach knowledge in others I have met on the way.

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